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On a chilly but humane November night in Toronto, Allison Williams and I slip into an expansive conversation about the polite ways one can manipulate an audience. Williams is an actress, one of the more self-aware of her generation; audience manipulation is her not-so-secret weapon. And I’m abundantly aware that, as a writer profiling her for a magazine, I’m an essential part of that audience.
I have interviewed Williams several times over the years, and each time is as lovely and warm and full of mutual compliments as the last. I would say, at this point, we like one another. But also, do we? Can we? Is it possible to have an “authentic” connection during a press commitment between two people who know how the personality machine operates and are each trying to work it for their own advantage? Is it gauche to admit you’re both trying to have a nice time? Maybe, but let’s just lean into the ambiguity for now and enjoy ourselves.
Williams and I are sitting outside in the dark, with only a few dim streetlights providing visibility in a narrow space between talent trailers. I’m here to talk about M3GAN, a killer thriller starring Williams that comes out in January, but she’s already shooting her next project, Fellow Travelers, a limited series set at the height of McCarthyism. Williams’ hair is still curled and pinned for a midcentury dinner party, but filming is done for the day. We’re wearing sleeping-bag-sized coats, both of which she provided. The fantasy and the reality of Hollywood collide.
The age-old metric of success for a celebrity profile is the degree of authenticity achieved, the partial or total unmasking of artifice in pursuit of truth. But in an era of simulated selves and parasocial relationships, it’s the artifice that interests me more. Maybe artifice is too cynical a word, though. It’s not an act of cunning or subversion for a celebrity to have a public and private version of herself. When your work by definition sets you in the sights of millions of people who can access reams of personal information about you, creating a you you can share with the masses but check at the door when it’s time to go home seems more like a survival tactic than a vanity play.
The delight of Allison Williams is how game she is to pick the entire process apart. She knows people have preconceived notions of her, so why not play into them? “For me to think that we live in a world where people are coming in tabula rasa—like, ‘I forget everything I’ve ever seen the person do, everything I know about her’—that would be inhuman!” she says. You know that coconspirator dynamic that forms when a stranger leans in close at a party and starts bonding with you over how weird the vibe is? That’s like talking to Williams about her own life; just two people huddled in a quiet corner, sizing up her persona together, going OK but who is she? You don’t know if you’ll ever see each other again, or exchange handles after this, but for right now you’re the best of friends. By the end of the night you’ll even have inside jokes, and since you’re comfortable you’ll wander into strange conversational tangents like this:
“The metaverse would ask us to be comfortable eschewing the authentic, the physical, the human, the grounded, the stripped away, the bare bones, for a persona of our very deliberate creation,” Williams says when I ask her about the construction of new identities in a digitally mediated age. “I have found that dance, that conversation between two versions of preferred reality, to be very interesting.” She presents this in what I have come to recognize as a key feature of her conversational parlance, scholarly analysis befitting her English degree from Yale but delivered in a casual, unpretentious cadence. Williams is clever as hell, and with just enough self-effacement to be grounded, but not so much that it turns into an affect. She is dancing a singular dance. She is modeling a new way of being. She is one of the most deliberate creations I’ve ever seen.